Table of Contents
Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa
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eISBN : 978-1-440-67857-8
Copyright 2006 Â© Micol Ostow
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To my mother, the original
It's very hot.
Inexplicably, it is about three thousand degrees in this overstuffed funeral home, a fact that is not abetted by the number of sweat-shiny mourners pressed against one another, fanning themselves.
At the front of the room is my grandmother Rosa's casket, propped open in full display. I did not know my grandmother Rosa, and I did not, until this very day, have any idea that my mother's extended family was so large.
There are probably a hundred or so relatives at this wake and at least fifty too many stuffed into this room. A rickety fan whirs forlornly in the far corner, but it's too far away to do much good from where I sit. I don't think it's doing anything other than stirring the thick, heavy air anyway. Everyone is clamoring to get closer to the casket, to finger the rosary beads interlaced through my grandmother's unfeeling fingers, to glance from the framed photo that stands on a small side table to my grandmother and back to the photo again.
I hear murmurs, reviews of her lifelike appearance. But I never knew my grandmother in life, so I am not in a position to comment.
This is a day of firsts, my grandmother's body being only one of the several things I am seeing for the very first time today: Puerto Rico, a wake, an open casket, rosary beads. My mother's family, the RamÃrezes.
My father, brother, Max, and I stand at the very back of the room and try not to look self-conscious. This is no easy feat. We could not stand out more if we were wearing matching neon jumpsuits.
There is a trick I picked up back, I think, on the first day of middle school, a trick to looking like you aren't feeling out of place. The trick is to stand very, very still and be very, very quiet.
Sometimes people see this behavior and assumeâmistakenlyâthat you are supremely pissed off. But it's all about getting the lay of the land. Looking at my mother, who stands just next to the casket, holding one of her three sisters' hands, I think that it will take more time than I can even imagine to get the lay of
Sometimes people take me for being aloof or even stuck-up, I know. At least they did in school before they got to know me, before they realized that I was just shy. But being stuck-up is infinitely better than sticking out, I think.
My mother runs her fingertips along the smooth, polished wood of the casket. She looks confused. Behind her stand her three older sisters, all jostling to get closer to the body. They remind me of a set of dolls I had as a child, identical wooden carvings that grew successively smaller, each cradled inside the doll one larger until, ultimately, they were all swallowed by the largest. A matched set.
My mother and her sisters have the same cocoa-colored skin, the same rich brown eyes, the same thick dark hair.
It is like watching the results of some elaborate long-term psychological study, the ones with the twins separated at birth. After being raised under vastly polarized circumstances, they come back together to discover that they are inherently the same nonetheless.
I know the story: my mother came to New York as a coed, the only one of her sisters to go to college. What I don't know is whether or not she ever planned to return to Puerto Rico. She met my father during her sophomore year and married him just after they graduated. She got her PhD in women's studies and a cushy position at a CUNY outpost; he went to law school. At some point they fled the city in pursuit of the suburban yuppie dream: an SUV, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, private school for myself and for Max. I shouldn't sound so bitchy, though; I never minded it. The only thing I didn't have was contact with my mother's family.
Over the years I'd formed my own opinions as to why that was. In my mind the situation morphs into a glamorous if tragic melodrama, a Cinderella story of a self-made woman forced to choose between two lives. Surveying the sea of ill-fitting suits, scuffed shoes, and wrinkled faces before me, I think I can understand why she made the choice that she did. If only she didn't look so miserable.
To my right, Max elbows me in the ribs. “I think someone's getting set to speak.”
I follow his gaze. Indeed, at the front of the room, a stocky man, bursting out of his best outfit, is pushing off from his seat. My brother raises his eyebrows to show what he thinks of this development. “Let's go while the going's good.” He turns to my father and tugs at his suit jacket. “We have to hit the bathroom.”
My dad pivots and shoots us both a pleading look. He stands stiffly, at least three paces from the nearest relative. He clearly does not want to be left alone. But really, we're all three of us alone here together. There isn't much I can do for him in this room at this moment as this surreal scene unfolds.
Also, I think I'm melting deep into the waistband of my matte jersey skirt. Gross.
“We'll be right back,” I whisper to my dad, not necessarily meaning it. I pat his back reassuringly, and Max and I slip out the back exit, unnoticed.
“Your grandmother passed away last night,” my father said to me. “It was a heart attack, in the middle of the night.”
I panicked, my breath coming in short bursts, reminding me suddenly of young women in Victorian times, laced tight into cage-like corsets.
How could this be? I thought. Nana wasn't old, not by grandparents standards. We'd had dinner together last Friday night, the same as we do every week. She bought a challah from the local kosher bakery, and her housekeeper roasted a chicken. We waited for dinner to be ready while my grandfather listened to classical music in his library.
Max and I sat in the living room, pretending not to be arguing over whether we'd watch reruns of
. Business as usual. No sign of trouble, heart or otherwise.
But there it was, Tuesday, a random Tuesday afternoon. I sat at the kitchen table scratching a pencil over the surface of a crossword puzzle. It was a thoroughly unremarkable day but for the fact that my grandmother was now dead. Max and my mother were nowhere to be found. Maybe they'd already heard?
“When is the funeral?” I asked. I swallowed hard.
“Saturday,” he replied. “We'll leave for Puerto Rico tomorrow morning.” Then, as an afterthought, “You should pack.”
There were a million bits and pieces of that sentence that were wrong. I couldn't even pinpoint them, couldn't decide where to begin. For one, there was the fact that according to Jewish tradition, a funeral must be held as soon after a death as possible. Saturday wasn't soon: it was three days away.
Also unclear to me was why we would be packing for Puerto Rico. This wasâto say the leastânot an ideal time to be taking a vacation. I struggled with these thoughts, deliberating how best to voice these concerns. I rearranged my features as best as I could, aiming for some sort of neutral countenance. To fall apart right then would have been some sort of watershed, and I wasn't ready for that.
After a few false starts, I settled on, “Huh?”
It was my father's turn to be baffled. He was drinking from a glass of water and played a thick finger along the rim of the glass, slowly scrunching up his forehead. For a few minutes he didn't say anything. I guessed that like me, he was trying very hard to hold it together. Suddenly, though, the creases in his face settled themselves, deflating into a smooth, uninterrupted landscape. I recognized that look. It was dawning realization.
“Oh,” he said, taking a slow sip from his glass and gulping it down with great effort. “No.”
Now I was impatient. No, she's not dead? No, there's no funeral? No, we will not be having an awkwardly timed trip? Was this all a huge mistake?
“No, sweetie. You're misunderstanding. Not that grandma. It's Grandma Rosa that's dead.”
Outside of the funeral parlor, Max points out a thicket of shrubbery in desperate need of watering. “Here,” he says, and ducks behind it. He digs into his pocket and pulls out a pack of Marlboros. He fishes a cigarette from the pack and a lighter from his other pocket. In one deft motion, the cigarette is lit. All at once he's inhaling in quick, thick gulps. He turns his face from me and exhales forcefully, a steady stream of smoke, more of a sigh than anything else. He runs his free hand through his hair. “Jesus.”
I nod. Mostly I'm stunned that he's got the whole routine down to under ten secondsâmy brother, the high school freshman.
I wonder what else he knows how to do. At the same time, I don't want to ask.
I realize I'm feeling slightly dizzy from the heat. The fresh air is a relief, but the sun beats down mercilessly. The humidity is cloying. The atmosphere hangs on me like wet cotton. I am very resentful of the fact that I am wearing stockings; I'm, like, the only one here who is. Other than my mother, of course.
Max gestures toward a collection of children playing a makeshift gameâit looks like it could be jacks or maybe marblesâover near a spindly bush of their own. The girls' braids are coming undone, and the boys' shoes are untied. The toys that they are playing with strike the ground and cough up clouds of dust, causing everyone to laugh.